Rebekah Higgitt, Recreating Newton

Rebekah Higgitt, Recreating Newton: Newtonian Biography and the Making of Nineteenth-Century History of Science (Pickering & Chatto 2007) 286pp. £60 Hb. ISBN 978-1851969067

Until relatively recently historians of science have been sceptical about biography as a mode through which to understand scientific practice, and sceptical about what has been seen as the inevitable partiality of a biographer for his or her subject. The central insight of Rebekah Higgitt’s Recreating Newton is to turn that partiality to advantage. Tightly focusing on biographers of Newton between 1820 and the 1860s, a period in which Isaac Newton’s reputation as a scientific genius was invented and consolidated in the public imagination, Higgitt effectively demonstrates her biographers’ commitments not to Newton, as such, but to the variety of moral, social and scientific positions the figure of Newton, loaded with so much cultural baggage, could be made to represent. In doing so Higgitt’s well-researched study signals the rich resource that scientific biography offers to the historian of science.

Higgitt’s careful documentation of her sources and close attention to detail reveals compelling instances of biography as a mode through which scientific method and practice can be debated and shaped. Newton’s first biographer, Jean-Baptiste Biot, publishing in the Biographie universelle (1822), fashioned his account of Newton’s life and character in order to situate the ‘Laplacian Programme’ with which he was connected within a culturally-authoritative Newtonian tradition. Biot’s situation of the Laplacians’ increasingly-challenged ‘corpuscular theory of light’ within a Newtonian framework attempted to counteract the rising tide of support for Augustin Jean Fresnel’s wave theory. Furthermore, using a newly-discovered letter Biot attempted to prove that Newton was a melancholy genius who had suffered a mental collapse in 1693 and 1694, arguing that after these dates he had never regained his intellectual strength and had turned to unimportant work on biblical chronology. Biot’s interpretation of this original source not only meant that his biography was the first to consider the possibility that Newton had suffered a breakdown, but also deployed the seventeenth-century tropes of melancholy as evidence of Newton’s disordered genius. The implication was that Newton’s scientific work could be separated, by his madness, from his faith and his work on religion. This move broadly supported the Laplacian position that God and final causes had no role in science.

However, both the separation of science and faith and, more importantly, the link Biot posited between the processes of scientific discovery and genius, were problematic for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge when it translated Biot’s biography in 1828. The SDUK offered its working-class readers scientific heroes who were moral exemplars of the view that hard work and patience led to success. If scientific discoveries were made by Romantic geniuses, divinely-inspired, then the working man would have little to gain from applying himself to scientific work. Promoting the Newtonian system as the antithesis of hypothetical speculation, the SDUK omitted from its translation Newton’s claim that he had not though Euclid worth studying, emphasizing instead the importance of self-application in scientific discovery.

Such examples gather force throughout Higgitt’s book. David Brewster’s tricky defence of Newton against Biot in 1835 downplayed Newton’s illness using new archival sources, reinstated the importance of Newton’s theological writings, and used the image of Newton to make a call for national and governmental support of science – Brewster’s reviewers, nonetheless, noted that much of Brewster’s evidence went against him. By contrast Francis Baily’s Account of the Revd. John Flamsteed (1835) was a riposte to the Newton hagiographers and to the growth of ‘Newtonian Studies’ between 1835 and 1855. Brewster’s second biography of Newton (1855) responded to criticisms that his previous work had not been firmly rooted in primary source-based evidence, but utilized the archives only to rearticulate his defence of Newton as the father of scientific methodology. Higgitt goes on to convincingly demonstrate that an earlier trust in the connection between intellect, morality and faith was unravelling by the 1860s in the face of increasingly minute and specialized researches, and as a result of a growing emphasis on archival research. Nonetheless, popular interpretations of Newton continued to fashion him as a Romantic genius, even as historians of science used his image to debate the process of scientific discovery itself.

Unlike Patricia Fara, whose Newton: The Making of Genius (2002) offered a more sweeping account of the creation of Newton’s reputation taking in the eighteenth century and examining a wider range of genres (poetry, periodical publications, the growth of the heritage industry, the marketing of Newtonian images such as the Newton Wedgwood bust), Higgitt does not offer her reader a standardized account of the life and works of her protagonist. In one way this makes for disorientating reading – it is difficult to assess the multiple ‘recreations’ of Newton without having a standard model against which to judge and compare them. But this is the central point of the book. Higgitt’s is not the story of how we got to our current understanding of Newton, or how Newton’s twenty-first century reputation was forged. Where Fara’s study seeks to understand Newton’s transformation into a Romantic ‘genius’ and a scientific hero, Higgitt’s more detailed approach unpacks the notions of genius and heroism by asking how Newton’s nineteenth-century biographers attempted to answer the more penetrating questions: is scientific discovery the product of a moment of inspiration or of the application of method? Which are the most reliable routes to scientific knowledge: theory or observation? Solitary or communal efforts? It would be to severely mitigate the impact of Higgitt’s study to offer a definitive account of Newton’s life and works: by the logic of the book itself the Newton she could give us would not only be a Newton forged through constant revisions and reinterpretations over the last 300 years. It would also be a Newton necessarily inflected by Higgitt’s own scientific and cultural agendas.

Recreating Newton illustrates some of the difficulties of interdisciplinary discussion. Despite Higgitt’s attempt to interweave interdisciplinary material in her discussion of both historical and scientific debates, her focus remains for the most part on the scientific context, so that the book is more likely to be read by historians of science than by historians or literary critics. Frequent references to such phenomena as the ‘Banksian Learned Empire’, the ‘action-at-a-distance world view’, and some of the knottier details of the scientific debates in which Higgitt frames her discussion might not be entirely esoteric to the general academic reader but their cumulative force sometimes threatens to curtail the book’s cross-disciplinary appeal. But it should be borne in mind that the problems inherent in interdisciplinary dialogues are not of Higgitt’s making. In fact, the book stands partly as a riposte to certain kinds of literary criticism which, in the study of life writing, have dwelt solely on the genre’s rhetorical, narrative and discursive features and have largely ignored its content. In its fourth chapter, ‘Newtonian Studies and the History of Science 1835-1855’ the book most successfully demonstrates its engagement with the issues involved in interdisciplinary research, not in an examination of its own methods but in a detailed study of the ways in which different genres of history-writing, such as biography, philosophical history, general history, and a developing sensitivity to archival sources, contributed to the production of different accounts of Newton’s life and works. The cultural centrality of the figure of Newton thus enables Higgett to use him as a test case for a study which is also concerned with historiographical method. In demonstrating the strength of the ‘Reputational’ approach, examining the role scientific biographies had to play in arguing for, and sometimes determining, the status of science within the wider culture, Higgitt’s book is a valuable addition to work on Victorian life writing as a whole. Despite its central appeal to historians of science, also offers pause for thought for historians and literary critics.

Adelene Buckland, Cambridge Victorian Studies Group